Rafael Nadal set another record today. By winning the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, Nadal earned his 50th claycourt title, breaking the record held by Guillermo Vilas.
There was a nice symmetry to this accomplishment. Vilas is Nadal’s stylish ancestor. The accomplished Argentine was the first of a trio of lefties I’ve dubbed “The Contemporary Conquistadors.” (The third is Thomas Muster, another lefty claycourt genius who won 40 claycourt titles in late ‘80s and ‘90s and also played quite similarly to Vilas and Nadal).
Like Nadal, Vilas burst on the scene with his own fashion statement – flowing hair, tucked under a colorful headband. Like Nadal, Vilas was physically imposing – his arm a log, his legs tree trunks. Vilas was also a clay-court sadists, master of lacerating topspin drives, particularly in the form of a vicious, sharply-angled, high-bouncing forehand. And while Vilas and Nadal savored the chance to grind opponents into the dust with one long rally after another, each also relished those moments when he could strike a bold passing shot that would simultaneously demoralize the man across the net – and electrify the crowd. For make no mistake: as focused as each was, as attrition-based as each played, Vilas and Nadal knew they were also performers.
Forty years ago, Vilas put together one of the most amazing years in tennis history. In 1977, his match record was a staggering 145-14, an effort highlighted by victories at Roland Garros and the US Open, as well as 15 other title runs. Also like Nadal, by then Vilas had become more comfortable coming to net, a skill that proved quite handy when he upset Jimmy Connors in the finals of the US Open. Oddly enough, such were the nuances of the ATP computer at that time that Vilas did not finish the year ranked number one in the world.
As for Nadal, based on the way he’s been playing this year, it’s hard to see his clay court resume stopping at 50 titles. He’s next off for Barcelona. As far as the French Open goes, until he draws his last breath, Nadal will always be considered a contender. But now the picture has changed. With Novak Djokovic in disarray, Andy Murray still recovering from injury, Roger Federer out and Stan Wawrinka searching form, Nadal has emerged as a significant favorite to once again conquer Roland Garros.